The National Academy of Sciences, the nation’s most eminent scientific organization, produced a book on the evidence supporting the theory of evolution (and arguing against the introduction of creationism or other religious alternatives in public school science classes) in 1984. It published another in 1999. This month, they produced a third, but with a twist, for it is intended specifically for the lay public. Further, it devotes a great deal of space to an explanation of the differences between science and religion, maintaining that the acceptance of evolution does not require abandoning belief in God.
Barbara A. Schaal, who is a vice president of the academy, an evolutionary biologist at Washington University and a member of the panel that produced the book, said to the New York Times, “We wanted to produce a report that would be valuable and accessible to school board members and teachers and clergy.” Titled “Science, Evolution and Creationism,” the 70-page work asserts that “attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.”
I would agree. While I am not convinced of much that has been suggested under macro-evolutionary theories, and even less those pertaining to hominoid evolution, I have no problem with those who hold to various forms of theistic evolution. If, in the end, it is demonstrated that this is the method God chose to use, so be it. The Genesis narrative does not speak to how God created, only that God created. The Christian has nothing to fear from science because the God of the Bible is the God of creation. All true scientific discoveries simply illuminate the world God has made.
But this is not what is meant by the report’s desire to diffuse the tension between science and religion. Faith is upheld by trivializing it, reducing it to the likes of a favorite color, or preferred style of music. As the report phrases it, science and religion deal with two different kinds of human “experience.” There is the experience which can be validated as fact (science), and there is the experience that can only be embraced in faith (religion). So believe what you want about God – that is your prerogative – just don’t treat it like you would a scientific reality.
It is to be granted that modern science is based on empirical evidence and testable explanation. One cannot put God in a test-tube and determine His existence. But there is more at hand here than science doing its job, and knowing its limitations in regard to matters of faith. It is about limiting what religion can say about science. The working idea is that we can maintain our religious faith and our scientific discoveries not by seeing both as operating in the realm of public truth – to be jointly engaged and interpreted accordingly – but by seeing them as separate categories altogether that should never be allowed to intertwine. If you wish to believe in God, fine; just don’t posit that this God actually exists as Creator, or that He could actually be pulled out to explain anything.
As Ronald Numbers has written, “Nothing has come to characterize modern science more than its rejection of appeals to God in explaining the workings of nature.” Hence the report’s categorical rejection of any and all forms of creationism, including intelligent design - calling such positions devoid of evidence, “disproven” or “simply false.”
At issue here is the larger cultural current of privatization. As I wrote in Serious Times, privatization is the process by which a chasm is created between the public and the private spheres of life, and spiritual things are increasingly placed within the private arena. So when it comes to things like business, politics, or even marriage and the home, personal faith is bracketed off. The process of privatization, left unchecked, makes the Christian faith a matter of personal preference, trivialized to the realm of taste or opinion. Yet faith does not simply have a new home in our private lives; it is no longer accepted outside of that sphere. More than showing poor form, talk of faith has been banished from the wider public agenda.
So the National Academy of Sciences is happy for religion to exist, and does not want anyone to see a conflict between science and religion. But do not think this means that those with religious conviction should pursue science with a religious worldview on equal footing as those who engage it with a naturalistic perspective.
No, science and religion are encouraged to co-exist…as long as religion knows its place.
Which is no place at all.
James Emery White
“Science, Evolution and Creationism,” Committee on Revising Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Available as a free PDF from http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11876.html.
“Evolution Book Sees No Science-Religion Gap,” Cornelia Dean, New York Times, Friday, January 4, 2008, p. A11.
James Emery White, Serious Times (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press).
On privatization, see Os Guinness, The Gravedigger File: Papers on the Subversion of the Modern Church (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1983), as well as Thomas Luckmann, The Invisible Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1967). Perhaps the best investigation into this dynamic of modernity was offered by Robert Bellah, et al., in Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985). The writings of Peter Berger are, of course, always invaluable as well.
Ronald L. Numbers, “Science without God: Natural Laws and Christian Beliefs,” in When Science and Christianity Meet, edited by David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), p. 265.